Art helps break bondage in Pakistan

Stars shine even brighter here on the edge of the desert, in a place where Raja dreams of flying through the night sky as a pilot. The 17-year-old couldn't have imagined the dream until recently, as Raja is among the first generation in Biel to enjoy freedom from bonded labor.

Children of Biel
The children of Biel, who face a brighter future free of bonded labor. Photo: Matt Hackworth/CWS

By Matt Hackworth/CWS

BIEL, Punjab Province, Pakistan - Stars shine even brighter here on the edge of the desert, in a place where Raja dreams of flying through the night sky as a pilot.

The 17-year-old couldn’t have imagined the dream until recently, as Raja is among the first generation in Biel to enjoy freedom from bonded labor.

“Before we used to have constant pressure,” says the shy teenager. “It was sort of a prison.”

Across Pakistan and much of the developing world, the U.N. estimates some 20 million people still work in modern indentured service – in effect, a kind of slavery. Wealthy landowners hire people in poverty for manual labor, and then charge them enormous rents for places to live, food and interests on loans that, realistically, can never be paid off. Many cheat workers of wages.

“These people can’t read or write, so whatever the landlord writes on their bill, it’s on them,” says Solomon Khurrum, director of Society for Safe Environment & Welfare of Agrarians in Pakistan, a longtime CWS partner. “For example, they’ll only get paid for 10 to 15 days even though they worked a whole month.”

Labor bonds don’t end at the grave. Debts continue to be compounded across generations, sealing the fate of children often before they are even born.

The work the laborers perform is largely in rural areas and invisible to most. The tasks are backbreaking: brickmaking, refining sugar, farm labor.  Pakistani law has barred bonded labor for years. However, in illiterate caste communities where no one reads or writes, how would anyone know?

Center Stage

The rip of a generator’s start breaks the night stillness, and lights pierce the darkness. A handful of children begin to sing and a drummer’s cadence, heard from a distance, beckons people from nearby villages.

The glow of electric lights is enough to gather people from miles around, just to see what’s happening. Once a crowd has flocked, actors in traditional clothing begin to tell one family’s story of how to break bonded labor.

The short play outlines how a family fought its indenture, recovered a daughter from an ill-arranged marriage and managed to find prosperity.

Khurrum says that he and colleagues have identified theater as the best medium to help rural Pakistanis discover they have rights.

“This has an instant impact,” Khurrum says. “They see it and it changes their lives.”

Heromall watched as his community enjoyed one of the theater group’s earliest performances, and learned about their rights under the law.

“Our community is much more aware, now that we have more options for different jobs,” Heromall says. “We are much more united now.”

The play teaches laborers the basics of the law, how to seek protections and how to bond together as a community to create a common voice. CWS supports several troupes that tour Pakistan’s most rural areas, and from their performances dozens of communities have been motivated to seek their rights.

SSEWA-Pak helps link communities in bondage with government resources that aim to help communities break free. As many communities are largely invisible to government workers, much of SSEWA-Pak’s work involves training communities to be their own best advocates.

In doing so, they have helped those like Raja dream of life and goals they never thought would be possible.

Raja has completed the 10th grade and is focused on math classes that will help him achieve his dream of becoming a pilot, instead of spending his lifetime working off his family’s bond.

“Now we are free,” he says.

Media Contact:
Lesley Crosson, 212-870-2676, lcrosson@churchworldservice.org
Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526, jdragin@gis.net


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